At four years old, model Winnie Harlow was diagnosed with vitiligo. After suffering from years of bullying, eventually causing her to drop out of high school, she is now using her platform to share her story and experiences dealing with the condition.
In Harlow’s case, the effects are striking, creating a sharp contrast between her natural, dark skin tone and the white patches caused by vitiligo. In other cases, the condition is much less pronounced, creating patches only on a small area. For example, actor John Hamm was diagnosed with stress-related vitiligo on his hands while working on Mad Men.
According to the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, 1%-2% of Americans live with the disorder.
What is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the pigment cells in the skin. The pigment cells may be permanently destroyed or injured by the white blood cells in the immune system. If treated early before the pigment cells are destroyed, they may recover and repigment. Research has shown that people with vitiligo have melanocytes that are more susceptible to stress, creating an immune response where the body attacks its own cells as if they were germs.
Vitiligo can affect anybody, regardless of age or race. Researchers believe that there may be a genetic link to the disorder. In about 20% of cases, an individual with the condition has at least one close family member who also has it.
It can also affect any part of the body, but areas frequently exposed to the sun, such as the hands, face, feet, and arms, are more likely to show symptoms. It can also develop on the scalp, causing the hair that grows in the affected area to turn completely white.
Vitiligo is not contagious, nor is it associated with any painful or irritating symptoms.
Types of Vitiligo
Vitiligo is categorized based on the location of pigment loss:
Generalized causes patches all over the body.
Segmental is found on only one part of the body, like the legs, face, or hands.
Focal vitiligo only affects a single spot on the skin and doesn’t grow or spread over time.
Trichrome creates three different depths of color– heavy discoloration, followed by a patch of lighter discoloration, followed by natural skin.
Universal is a rare case in which more than 80% of the body is affected by the disorder.
Treatments and Therapies
While there is no cure for vitiligo, patients can slow down the depigmentation process. Corticosteroid creams can reduce inflammation and, in some cases, bring pigmentation back to the area.
Phototherapy, or UVA therapy, can slow down or stop the progress of vitiligo when used in conjunction with medication.
Finally, in cases of universal vitiligo, your doctor may recommend a depigmentation process, during which the patient applies cream to unaffected areas of skin to lighten it until it matches the affected areas.